If there’s one bit of health advice that’s not being listened to during the Covid-19 crisis, it’s the American Academy of Pediatric’s recommendations on screen time. These guidelines - advising no more than an hour a day of screen time for children aged two to six - were written for a time when we weren’t all cooped up inside, with screens our primary way of accessing the outside world.
However, it only takes one kids’ TV marathon for a parent to realise that a day full of totally un-reigned and unsupervised screen time is not good for anyone – not for the child, who can often become overtired and overstimulated; and not for the parent, who will have to deal with that child (and will probably be feeling guilty about it too).
“Research by SuperAwesome, a kids' technology company in the USA, has highlighted that traffic to children's apps and digital services has soared by nearly 70% [since social distancing measures came into place],” says Dr Paul Gelston, Clinical Psychologist at Dubai Community Health Centre. “Understandably, parents are anxious about their children’s use of gadgets and tablets, with many struggling to balance keeping their children entertained whilst abiding by strict COVID-19 social distancing and quarantine rules.” Here’s how to manage your child’s screen time during the Lockdown:
1. Give Yourself a Break
These are unprecedented times, says Dr Paul Gelston, and anything but ‘normal’ circumstances: “It is essential as a parent to show yourself some compassion and not beat yourself up for allowing your children to use tablets and gadgets more often than they usually would. A number of parents are trying to juggle working from home, supporting their children’s learning, as well as the myriad of other family issues to manage on top of this. Cut yourself some slack – it is perfectly fine if you are finding things difficult and making choices for an easier life at the moment. For example, ordering a takeaway more often than usual or allowing your child that extra time on the iPad. Recommendations regarding children’s use of devices were not intended for unprecedented times like these, so flexibility and allowing yourself to change the rules for a temporary period of time is perfectly acceptable.”
2. Be Open With Your Children
Depending on your child’s age, it could help to be open with them about the increased screen time. “Let your child know that this is an unusual situation and that their increased use of tablets, laptops and TVs is because many of us are not allowed outside but more importantly, remind them that it is for a temporary period only,” says Dr Gelston. “This will help children to recognise that their increased use of devices is unusual and time-limited, and from the outset prepares them for the future when things somewhat return to ‘normal’.”
3. Label Different Screen Time
We should actually get rid of the phrase ‘screen time’ all together, says author of "The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World, Jordan Shapiro, who says that we should be thinking about screens in the same way as we think about food; aiming for a healthy, balanced screen diet.. Dr Paul Gelston agrees: "Outline the different types of ‘screen time’ children have access to – for example, school, gaming, family calls and video watching ‘screen time’. This way it can be helpful for children to distinguish between and prioritise the different functions of their gadget use. The overall aim of this is for your child to understand that screen time for academic work is a priority and is carried out for longer periods of the day, whereas gaming and video-watching screen time can be more limited. There are no official guidelines for this for such an unprecedented global situation. Decide what works best for you as a family – if there is a specific time of day that is particularly busy for you as a parent, schedule that as the time when your children will be most engaged in their screen time, and don’t stress if this is longer than what they are usually allowed.”
Read more: Netflix rolls out improved parental controls
4. Social Connection
Child development experts have raised concern over the fact that a lack of social interaction could have serious emotional consequences for youngsters, during a time of formative social development. “Schedule video calls with their friends, classmates or family members to engage in conversations and interactions, to watch eachother play, to have lunch together, to play games and dance together or for adult family members to read them stories,” says Dr Paul Gelston. “This helps children to use devices for a range of activities and encourages them to interact with others at a time when social contact is so limited.”
5. Provide Alternatives
Given that many people are restricted from leaving their homes, alternative activity options are limited. “It could be helpful to provide a space at home for reading, drawing, arts and crafts, writing, exercise and stretching, etc,” says Dr Gelston. “If this is how you would prefer your child to use their time, schedule these activities first, with screen time provided as a reward. For example, ‘If you do 15 minutes of reading, you will be allowed 15 minutes of the iPad’. This also helps your child to learn that using tablets should be considered as a treat like ice-cream or their favourite fast food. It might also be helpful to create a schedule of activities for the day or week ahead, incorporating a range of activities both on and off their tablets. For example, healthy eating, break times, exercise, sleep, reading and family time.”
6. Educational Screen Time
“Remember that there are many useful ways that children can engage in screen time,” says Dr Paul Gelston. “High quality children’s channels, cartoons and videos contain educational content that has been shown to help with vocabulary, language development and basic reading skills. Choosing the right content for children to be exposed to can actually make use of their increased time at home.”
Dr Paul Gelston (BSc PgDip DClinPsy) is an Irish Clinical Psychologist who has lived and practiced in Dubai for the last four years. He specialises in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of difficulties related to childhood and adolescence, including Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADHD and Specific Learning Disorders, as well as conditions such as anxiety, low mood, emotion regulation problems, exam stress, OCD and panic attacks. He is based at Dubai Community Health Centre and is offering free Initial Consultation appointments to anyone who mentions Baby&Child UAE when they contact the centre.